- Prof. Enoka Kudavidanage on the LCRP
The Sri Lankan leopard is arguably one of Sri Lanka’s most famous and charismatic creatures. It is one of our most prolific tourism draws and plays an integral (and often underappreciated) role in our ecological balance.
August 1 is the day of the Sri Lankan leopard – a day used to celebrate the unique subspecies of leopard, panthera pardus kotiya, that roams practically all parts of our little island. Sri Lanka Leopard Day was instituted and marked for the first time last year based on a proposal put forward by the Wildlife and Nature Preservation Society of Sri Lanka (WNPS), Sri Lanka’s oldest (and the world’s third oldest) nature protection society.
Sri Lanka Leopard Day is a chance to shine a light on the plight of the leopard. Despite being one of Sri Lanka’s most famous wildlife resources, the Sri Lankan leopard was an endangered species up until 2020. In 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) downgraded the threat level to our leopards from Endangered to Vulnerable on their international Red List of Threatened Species.
However, as studies on the Sri Lankan leopard have been somewhat limited until the last 10 years or so, it is still classified as an endangered species in Sri Lanka’s Red List of Threatened Fauna and Flora.
To mark the second Sri Lanka Leopard Day, and to look back on what the last year has seen in terms of leopard conservation, Brunch sat down with Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka (SUSL) Department of Natural Resources Senior Lecturer Prof. Enoka Kudavidanage for an exclusive chat on the Sri Lankan leopard and the WNPS’s newest initiative, a multi-regional monitoring network for the Sri Lankan leopard, popularly called the Leopard Conservation and Research Project (LCRP).
2022 and leopard conservation
Ecologically, our leopards play a very important role being an umbrella species, meaning that the land under their use harbours many more species from prey to other mammalian wildlife, and conservation efforts targeted at protecting the leopard can be used to protect not just the leopard but the other less famous biodiversity in its habitats. The absence of the leopard will also have a knock-on effect on the ecosystems of which it is a part. This is why it’s doubly important to properly conserve the leopard.
Reflecting on what this year has been like for leopard conservation so far, Prof. Kudavidanage said that within Sri Lanka’s Protected Areas, leopards were largely protected by the protection status given to these areas (this is not to say they don’t face threats in these areas, simply that the threats are less). But outside Protected Areas, despite their status as a vulnerable species and protection under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO), they were more vulnerable to being hunted or harmed, especially when they cross human habitats when ranging across forest patches.
“The distribution of leopards is very wide. They are found throughout the country – in the wet zone, dry zone, and arid zone, inside Protected Areas and out. In terms of population, we estimate Sri Lanka has between 800 and 1,000 leopards, and now for several reasons we see increased sightings and interactions with leopards. Chief among these reasons is deforestation and forest fragmentation which leads leopards to move through human landscapes more and more,” Prof. Kudavidanage explained.
Another reason for increased sightings that Prof. Kudavidanage highlighted was a more engaged younger generation actively looking for creatures, but even adjusting for these factors, she shared that they had still seen some unusual behaviours among leopards over the past year.
The most progress in conservation has taken place in terms of research, where lack of information was a huge challenge before, and there are more and more researchers taking an interest in studying leopards. This research is coupled with awareness programmes from a variety of actors – researchers, NGOs, partnerships with the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Forest Department, and citizen science groups to name a few – that are working to educate communities and provide resources and data.
A concerted broad-spectrum monitoring system
This past year has also seen the institution of the LCRP, of which Prof. Kudavidanage is a Scientific Advisor. The LCRP is a multi-regional monitoring network for the Sri Lankan leopard that works to collect and collate data on the leopard islandwide, especially in under-studied areas, that can then be used to develop science-based conservation strategies to help Sri Lanka’s leopard population thrive.
The LCRP is embarked on by the WNPS in partnership with LOLC Holdings PLC, taking shape in the form of a network of specialised leopard conservation locations and research centres across identified geographically important areas within Sri Lanka. These research centres will focus on understanding the species function in populations or meta-populations that exist at much larger scales than individual management units at a regional level.
Prof. Kudavidanage shared that the basis of the LCRP was formed last Leopard Day, with the goal of having it up and running before Leopard Day 2022. “We know the general presence, the rough estimate of our leopard population through individual research done by scientists, photographers, and various others, but what we need is a way to put together this information into a system where it can be easily pulled out. We will be putting together a common database that can be shared with other scientists and with decision-makers in a form that can be easily understood,” she explained.
In its first phase of a five-year project, the LCRP has set up six research stations across the country – in Panama, Morningside, Kilinochchi, Belihuloya, Maskeliya, and Sigiriya. These stations will monitor the presence and behaviour of leopards in selected geographical areas, using camera traps and surveys.
The research centres will liaise with local wildlife and forest officers, and also serve as educational hubs to generate awareness amongst the local communities, including knowledge dissemination and generating research-based human-leopard conflict mitigation measures. This is timely and critical in addressing the increasing number of leopard deaths in Sri Lanka, predominantly through snares set up in a human-dominated landscape.
“Through a common framework over five years, we will be better able to understand leopards’ distribution, population, behavioural aspects, movements, and other ecological influences through ongoing research, both individually and collaboratively, to fill the gaps in our knowledge,” Prof. Kudavidanage said.
Conservation outside a research framework
With the LCRP taking its formative steps and forming a platform for wider research to be centralised, Prof. Kudavidanage shared that the power of the individual in making a difference to the Sri Lankan leopard was in no way diminished.
“When it comes to leopard conservation, the general public is split into two categories – those who live in areas where they frequently interact with leopards, and those in cities or areas without leopards who do not. For both groups, developing awarenesses, building a compassionate nature and educating children (our future decision-makers) to look at things in an ecological way is very helpful,” Prof. Kudavidanage said, adding that the media also had a huge role to play in building awareness on the leopard beyond the fact that it was simply a charismatic species in danger.
Key to building awareness and fostering conservation is how we speak about them, and Prof. Kudavidanage explained that one such example was the term ‘human-leopard conflict’. “I think it’s rather controversial to use that term. For conflict to happen, two parties need to be affecting each other negatively,” she expanded. “Right now there are lots of dangers or threats to leopards because of human activities, but very few cases of leopards attacking humans. In that sense, India truly has conflicts, but Sri Lanka does not. We have very few cases here.”
Speaking of leopard attacks on humans, Prof. Kudanavidage shared that the most recent high-profile leopard attack on a human was in early 2021, in Kumana National Park when two leopard attacks were reported in three days at the end of 2020/start of 2021.
However, Prof. Kudavidanage stressed that the Kumana incident was an outlier, and the circumstances of the first attack were unknown. The second attack was in the same area with the victim taking photographs of the first victim and could have been a case of the leopard defending its kill. “Most of the time, leopards attack out of fear,” Prof. Kudavidanage said, noting: “Any cat will attack when afraid. Leopards will not deliberately hunt people – in many cases they mistake a human crouching to be another animal.”
What we see reported as human-leopard conflict is mainly what Prof. Kudavidanage described as human-leopard interaction, and was to be expected given increased human encroachment into forests and increasingly fragmented forest patches that force leopards to foray into spaces with high human activity, and thus, run into humans more, as well as do things like hunt livestock and pets, which were easy prey for leopards.
“Sri Lanka needs to be made a more secure space for the leopard, and this is our objective – to see and show people that they can coexist with leopards without any issues, cut down habitat fragmentation, increase ecological understanding, and fight poaching and snaring through strengthened law enforcement and concentrated monitoring,” Prof. Kudavidanage said.